Elephant Cities

On 20 maart 2016, in duurzaamheid, Geen categorie, wetenschap, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Cities and the Wealth of Nations’ (1984) of Jane Jacobs:

At the Pakhuis de Zwijger meeting of last Friday, Nikki Brand and Jaap-Evert Abrahamse criticized my ‘plan’ for doubling the size of Amsterdam. Sure, I have to admit, I did not respond to their anxiety Amsterdam will turn into an ‘elephant city’ by letting it grow from one million inhabitants into two million within thirty years from now. By calling the enlarged Amsterdam an elephant city, they referred to Jane Jacobs, who wrote in ‘Cities and the Wealth of Nations’ that elephant cities are the result of faulty feedback systems. Her theory was that some cities would profit more from the national currency and get the right feedback, while other cities don’t. Paris, London, Sydney and Toronto are all one brain-stem breathing centers: so-called elephant cities. “Whichever city in a nation happens to be contributing most heavily to the international export trade is apt to be the city whose needs are best served by the national currency.” As far as small countries are concerned, she wrote, this was not really a problem – think of Finland (Helsinki), Sweden (Stockholm), Norway (Oslo) or Denmark (Copenhagen) –, but in big nations most cities will become inert and provincial because they get less feedback. How lucky we are, the Low Countries with our Ring City!

Amsterdam becoming an elephant city? Since the introduction of the euro in 2000 there is no Dutch currency any more, so Amsterdam cannot be or become an elephant city that is profiting exceedingly from the currency system. Two: a city of 2 million in a small country of 17 million people should not be disquieting. Three: it’s only normal that there is one city the biggest in the national city-ranking, and according to the rank-size rule the biggest has double the size of the second biggest city. In every country in the world this Zipf’s Law holds. Only in the Netherlands, Amsterdam is just a tiny bit bigger than Rotterdam, which is abnormal. Four: In the future the Dutch pattern will resemble more the Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish pattern, which is one of the city-state. Nothing wrong with that. And five: Jane Jacobs wrote she had just presented a hypothesis, so her theorising might be false. But she was right in pointing at the fact that elephant city-region patterns create miserable resentments and exacerbate bitterness or hatreds. The doubling of Amsterdam will not go unnoticed. By the way, what’s wrong with elephants? Wanna know more about Zipf’s Law? Read ‘A Tale of Many Cities’ of Edward Glaeser: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/20/a-tale-of-many-cities/?_r=0

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2 Responses to “Elephant Cities”

  1. doubling the size of amsterdam would roughky imply doubling the number of inhabitants in NL, in other words dear Zef you are likely to chase illusions

  2. Nikki Brand says:

    Zef, that is not the point Jaap Evert and I were trying to make. First, preferential treatment by (central) government knows a variety of instruments: especially on a territory with a low level of urban autonomy and a tradition of intense government involvement in terms of centralized spatial planning, like ours. Currency is but one example: how about national economic and housing policy, large scale-infrastructure and so on (see f.e. Brand 2012, ‘De wortels van de Randstad’)?

    Second, Zipf’s Law is a rule of thumb, the result of a mechanism that seeks equilibrium within urban systems through economies of scale. It’s a great instrument to demonstrate hierarchy but a blunt one. Urban systems almost never comply with this rule of thumb (Gleaser whom you mentioned, but also De Groot et al. 2010, ‘Stad & Land’; Neal 2008, ‘From central places’). because the macroeconomic conditions under which economies of scale are created, change continuously. So I don’t think that non-compliance with Zipf’s Law NOW means that Amsterdam cannot become an Elephant City in the future.

    The fact that Amsterdam outranks Rotterdam only with a couple of thousand inhabitants would imply that the Netherlands still has a while to go before a true elephant is created. However the key issue is that faulty feedback-mechanisms, and thus Elephant Cities, are created by governments, and that precisely within the current Dutch governmental system the danger of long-term preferential treatment looms large. That’s our concern: not the natural concentration process within the Netherlands or Amsterdam’s obvious (potential for) growth.

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